'Raise your glass to the hard working people'

EDITOR'S NOTE: We came across veteran union and civil rights leader Ira Grupper's 2012 keynote speech to the Greater Louisville Building & Construction Trades Council's pre-apprenticeship training program graduates. Grupper also helped start the Kentucky Labor Institute. We think his remarks are still timely today.


Sisters and Brothers:

I am honored to have been asked to address you today, at your graduation ceremony. Your pre-apprenticeship class has given you a tool to move you on your career path.

I am so proud of you.  The Kentucky Labor Institute is proud of you.  We know about your hard work, your sacrifice, to get to today’s graduation.

Yet several of you told me, when I addressed your class a few months ago, that you were concerned about getting a good job.  Working class people today face major obstacles:  decline in real wages, lack of job security, job exporting, heavier work burdens, the issues of health care and retirement benefits, an increasing need for multiple breadwinners in a family just to maintain the current standard of living. 

Today there is a growing disparity of wealth.  There are the working poor, and the non-working wealthy, and a large group in the middle growing increasingly less secure.

Altho I currently teach at a university, I have worked in factories, hospitals, warehouses and elsewhere almost all of my adult working life.  So I know the truth of the words of James Baldwin:  “A civilization is not destroyed by wicked people.  It is not necessary that people be wicked, but (only) that they be spineless.”  –James Baldwin

While we must recognize these obstacles to a just society, today at graduation is a time to look with hope toward the future.  The Labor Movement represents the strength of organized labor:  We are the people who brought you the weekend. 

And there is notable positive change in the labor movement.  Your building and construction trades, for too many years, was all-white and all-male.  Even a white boy like me couldn’t get into many unions unless a relative was already in the union.

But look around you now, and you begin to see the colors and the ethnicities of our great country.  There is positive change.

This country does not honor enough the working women and men who create and maintain our world, everything we see around us.  Nor do we often enough honor an institution, the labor union, created by working men and women to protect our interests and give voice to our aspirations.

Beginning with the workingmen's parties of the 1830s, the advocates of equal rights mounted a series of reform efforts that spanned the nineteenth century. Most notable were the National Labor Union, launched in 1866, and the Knights of Labor, which reached its zenith in the mid-1880s. On their face, these reform movements might have seemed at odds with trade unionism, aiming as they did at the cooperative commonwealth rather than just a higher wage, 

Trade unionism tended to the workers' immediate needs, and labor reform to their higher hopes. The two were held to be strands of a single movement, rooted in a common working-class constituency and to some degree sharing a common leadership.

The formation of the Federal Society of Journeymen Cordwainers (shoemakers) in Philadelphia in 1794 marks the beginning of sustained trade union organization among American workers. From that time on, local craft unions proliferated in the cities, publishing lists of "prices" for their work, defending their trades against diluted and cheap labor, and, increasingly, demanding a shorter workday. Thus a job-conscious orientation was quick to emerge, and in its wake there followed the key structural elements characterizing American trade unionism--first, beginning with the formation in 1827 of the Mechanics' Union of Trade Associations in Philadelphia, central labor bodies uniting craft unions within a single city, and then, with the creation of the International Typographical Union in 1852, national unions bringing together local unions of the same trade from across the United States and Canada (hence the frequent union designation "international").

No study of the struggle of working class people would be complete without studying the Wobblies—that is, the IWW, the Industrial Workers of the World.  We must also study the CIO, the Congress of Industrial Organizations, the Southern Negro Youth Congress, La Raza, and other Latino groups, that organized Mexican and Mexican American Workers.  We must also pay tribute to the Chinese who were miners and railroad workers—and then fell victim to the racism of the Chinese Exclusion Act.

I sent one of my daughters a draft of the speech I am delivering today, and here’s part of her response:  “A graduation speech needs to be positive and hopeful, not depressing and dejected.  If you want the labor movement to be a central theme of your speech, I would suggest listing the accomplishments of the labor movement in the past (8 hour day, weekends off, safety measures, etc.).  It's okay to mention that some of those hard-fought successes face difficulties now, but…you might want to say that recent innovations, the ideas of young people, etc. can uphold and even improve conditions.”

She, of course, is correct.  So let me turn to the moral underpinnings in the struggle of workers for justice.

Every major faith tradition embraced by working families includes in its teachings the call for fair treatment of working people.  In the Hebrew Bible we listen to Jeremiah: "Woe to him...who makes his neighbor serve him for nothing, and does not give him his wages,".

Deuteronomy 24:14-15 admonishes us:  “Do not take advantage of a hired man who is poor and needy.”  Psalm 45:67 describes a God whose real scepter is a scepter of equity.  “They honor God who love righteousness and hate wickedness.”

In the New Testament we hear Timothy's admonition that the rich "are to do good, to be rich in good deeds, liberal and generous." 

In Ephesians 6:10-20 one finds:  “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world, and against the spiritual forces of evil”.  And in Matthew 6:24 it says:  “You cannot serve God and money..”.

In the Quran we learn from the Prophet Muhammad: "When you hire, compensate the workers and treat them fairly,"

The Prophet Muhammad teaches:  “Compensate the worker before the sweat dries”.  A “hadith” is a narrative about the life of the Prophet Muhammad.   In Hadith 24 of Forty Hadith by An-Nawis it is written:  “I have forbidden oppression for myself and have made it forbidden amongst you, so do not oppress one another.”

Our holy writings are rich in guidance for behavior toward workers. But so, also, are the songs and poetry of working class people, and particularly workers who were also intellectuals:

(W)e have a glowing dream of how fair the world would seem,  

When (men and women) live their (lives) secure and free.     

When the earth is owned by labor,

And there’s joy and peace for all, 

In that commonwealth of toil that is to be.

A good number of months ago I had the blues.  And then I was listening to that wonderful blues singer, Bettye Lavette, singing Mick Jaggers’ “Salt of the Earth (Raise your glass to the hard-working people).”  It didn’t make the problems go away.  But it was so smooth, it gave me courage to fight for a better world the next morning.

I am not a drinker.  But I salute the imagery, and the message, in congratulating you on your graduation, and wishing y’all much success in the future:

Let's drink to the hard working people    

Let’s drink to the lowly of birth

Raise your glass to the good and the evil          

Let's drink to the salt of the earth

Raise your glass to the hard working people

Let's drink to the uncounted heads  

Let's think of the wavering millions

Who need leaders but get gamblers instead

Spare a thought for the stay-at-home voter

His empty eyes gaze at strange beauty shows

And a parade of the gray suited grafters 

A choice of cancer or polio

Let's drink to the hard working people  

Let's think of the lowly of birth

Spare a thought for the rag taggy people

Let's drink to the salt of the earth

Let's drink to the hard working people

Let's drink to the salt of the earth

Let's drink to the two thousand million

Let's think of the humble of birth  

Thank you very much.